Value of plate discipline in fantasy
"A stern discipline pervades all nature, which is a little cruel that it may be very kind."
-- Edmund Spencer
Vernon Wells has gone mad.
After three consecutive woeful seasons in which he failed to eclipse 20 homers (and failed to eclipse a .711 OPS on two occasions), Wells has been one of the primary surprises of the 2010 fantasy baseball season. True, he's come down a piece since his ridiculously hot April, but according to ESPN.com's Player Rater, he's still provided positive fantasy value in any time frame you care to mention, and overall he's still been the sixth most valuable fantasy outfielder in baseball.
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Evidence of his seven weeks of excellence is all over his statistics. He has a .363 on-base percentage, compared to .311 in '09. He's slugging .603, compared to .400 last season. Yes, he has only three homers since April 20, which makes one believe he's not suddenly a 40-dinger slugger. But in that "cold" span, he's still posted a quasi-respectable .260 batting average and has still driven in 17 runs in 24 games (which would by itself be a 114-RBI pace). There's lots of speculation that after battling wrist and hamstring injuries last year, Wells is healthy, and that's why he's been resurgent. That may be true. But the change he's made to his game -- albeit during 2010's small sample size -- is intriguing. He's swinging more indiscriminately. Lots more indiscriminately.
So far this year, according to FanGraphs.com, Wells has swung at 38.6 percent of pitches that are outside the strike zone, the 11th-highest such mark in baseball. The average hitter so far this year is swinging at 27.4 percent of pitches outside the zone; in his career (including '10), Wells has swung at 25.6 percent of such pitches. At the same time, the percentage of such swings on which Wells makes contact is also on the rise: In his career, he's made contact 58.7 percent of the time when he swings at pitches outside the zone, but this year, that number is 65.2 percent. It's true that Wells has (like a lot of hitters) become gradually more accomplished during his career at making contact at non-strikes (if only to foul them off), but 2010's numbers represent an 11 percent leap from 2009 alone. In addition, Wells is simply swinging at more pitches overall: in '09, he swung at 46.8 percent of all pitches he saw; so far in '10, that number is 53.4 percent, a 14 percent increase. Simply put, ol' Vernon is up there a-hackin'.
Is that a bad thing? Does it bode well or poorly for Wells' continuing to be a strong fantasy asset? Well, it hasn't taken long for the league to catch up to the free-swinging Vernon: He's currently seeing strikes on just 43.5 percent of pitches thrown to him, the 18th-lowest such number in the majors. (The league average for 2010 is 47.8 percent; in his career, Wells has seen strikes on 51.7 percent of pitches.) At least partly as a result, Wells has fanned 12 times in the past 13 games (in 51 at-bats), and during the past 15 days, he's been "only" the 34th most valuable fantasy outfielder, though that's still higher than a lot of folks had him ranked before the season began.
For most batters, poor plate discipline leads to a lower batting average and on-base percentage, which tends to trickle down to the runs scored and (where applicable) speed categories. Yes, Wells is hitting .298 so far this season, but his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) -- which is .307 (and dropping) in 2010, compared to his career average of .290 -- fills in the blanks: The fact that his free swinging hasn't led to a lower average may be lucky. Certainly, you don't put it past Wells to change his free-swinging approach at the plate once (and if) it stops working, but for the moment, his regression in May is completely explicable thanks to these plate-discipline numbers.
Let's look at other players who stand as interesting plate-discipline case studies here in the third week of May and see whether there are discernable patterns:
Alex Gonzalez, SS, Toronto Blue Jays: Gee, why can't the Red Sox get a shortstop who produces like this? Gonzalez has 10 homers and 29 RBIs so far in 2010, easily putting him on a pace to eclipse career highs in both categories. I don't think any of us are so callow to believe that this journeyman will remain the No. 2 shortstop in our Player Rater all season (which he is right now), but it's fair to ask: How is he doing this, and can this guy -- who was undrafted in almost all standard fantasy leagues -- be worth owning all season?
As with his teammate Wells, Gonzalez is up there hacking. He's swinging at almost exactly the same percentage of overall pitches this year as he did last (53.3 percent, compared to last year's 53.5), but he's swinging at an incredible percentage of pitches outside the strike zone: 43.7 percent, the second-highest such number so far in 2010. In his career, he's swung at "only" 33.7 percent of pitches outside the zone. Accordingly, he's actually swinging at substantially fewer pitches inside the zone this year, and as you'd expect, his overall contact rate, which has always hovered right around the league average, is down this year: He's making contact on 76.1 percent of his swings. (The league average is typically around 80 percent.)
All this is a strong indication that Gonzalez finds himself in a fairly common situation: a player who is willingly trading contact for power. His batting average is a pedestrian .256 and isn't propped up by a particularly lucky BABIP, but given his relative contact woes, it won't be surprising to see him approach last year's .238 as the season progresses. And his home-run-per-fly ball (HR/FB) rate is currently 15.1 percent, or almost double his career average of 8.1 percent. In other words, a guy who's grown this undisciplined is likely to hurt you even further in batting average, and probably won't hit 20 homers total this year. Gonzalez is a player to trade away now.
Right. And if you're willing to assert that Carlos Gonzalez is ready to duplicate Guerrero's once-in-a-generation hand-eye coordination, I suppose I'd be willing to go there with you, and defend Gonzalez's .326 average. But while Guerrero has (freakishly) never posted a strikeout rate above 15 percent in his 15-season big league career, Gonzalez has basically never come close to being below 15 percent, either in the minors or the majors. Last year, he whiffed on a whopping 25.2 percent of his at-bats. This year, he's at 19.7 percent. This guy ain't Vlad.
It would be premature to proclaim that Gonzalez's high batting average so far this season is thanks to a lucky BABIP, not because his BABIP isn't high (it's at .375, which is top 15 in the majors), but because this is a young player, and we don't yet know what his baseline BABIP should be. He posted a .333 BABIP last year and is a prototypical "five-tool" player, so it won't be shocking to see him consistently produce a higher-than-average BABIP thanks to his speed. Still, something is going on here. This is a guy who strikes out too much, who swings at too much outside the zone, and to whom pitchers accordingly don't throw strikes. (Just 45.6 percent of pitches thrown to Gonzalez this year have been for strikes.) He's not a .326 hitter. Heck, he's not a .300 hitter. Maybe he levels out at .290 by the end of the year. But if that's the over/under number, I'm taking the under. If I could get something great for him in a trade today, I'd consider it.
Jeff Francoeur, New York Mets: I won't pile on. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck and lays eggs all over Citi Field, it's probably a duck. Frenchy has already crashed back to Earth after a nice first few weeks (in which praise was lavished upon him by some for his newfound discipline) and thus can stand as a cautionary tale for Wells and the two Gonzos. Francoeur's plate discipline, never good, is at an all-time ick: 43.2 percent. (His career percentage is 36.7 percent.) Pitchers aren't throwing him strikes (43.7 percent), and he's whiffed 16 times in his past 12 games. On April 18, Francoeur was hitting .356 and had eight walks in 53 plate appearances. Since then, he's hitting .140 with two walks in 95 plate appearances. I'm not saying the others I've mentioned here will definitely take downturns this severe. But in general, a willingness to swing at anything is a spooky quality, indeed.
Adam LaRoche, Arizona Diamondbacks: Quickly, let's discuss a guy who could be turning into a plate-discipline success story. LaRoche hasn't flashed his 30-homer power yet, but he also successfully avoided the annual April swoon that usually makes him the bane of fantasy owners. In fact, in April this year LaRoche posted a .296 average and a .954 OPS, compared to career averages of .209 and .698.
How did he do it? So far in 2010, LaRoche has swung at far fewer pitches outside the zone that we're accustomed to seeing: just 16.1 percent, compared with an also fairly respectable career average of 22.3 percent. He walked at a higher rate than his career average, he made contact at a better rate than his career average, and he generally looked like a guy who wasn't the spring fantasy poison everyone expects him to be.
Alas, before we get carried away, we should note that May hasn't been quite as sweet for LaRoche: He's whiffed in more than 30 percent of his at-bats, he's basically stopped hitting line drives in favor of grounders, and yes, his swings at pitches outside the zone have increased: He swung at a league-low 10.1 percent of such pitches in April, but is up to 24.4 percent so far in May. Still, the formula is there for LaRoche to be a more patient -- and thus less maddening -- first-half hitter, if he's willing to make the discipline he showed in April a permanent part of his game.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can ask him questions on Facebook.